The Vanishing Man

Michael Cooley, 2010

** UPDATE - Not long after writing this, a descendant of John Andrew Cooley tested. He is an exact 37-marker match to the descendant of William Cooley, mentioned below. (21 August 2011) **

It has circulated for decades that John Cooley of Stokes county, North Carolina was the same John Cooley said to have been born in Goshen, Orange county, New York in 1740 and that he and Elizabeth Fermin, his second wife, were the parents of the children later found in Stokes county.1 All of this, despite the fact that the latter John is believed to have lived in New York and Maryland all of his life (dying in Kent county MD in 1823) while "our" John spent his early years in Virginia and was later enumerated on the census records of North Carolina and Kentucky, probably dying in Casey county KY in 1811. Nevertheless, the myth persists and many instances of it still appears on the Internet.

Nearly a dozen descendants of the Stokes county Cooleys have had their Y chromosomes tested. The results are consistent and we can now be certain that John was of a rare type of haplogroup R1a1 found in Scotland and the North of England. It would be a simple matter to compare the results to descendants of the "Goshen John." In fact, I have been in correspondence with two eligible testers. To date, however, neither has tested and the search continues. In the meantime, we have two tantalizing genetic clues.

  1. A descendant of Jabez Cooley of Goshen has tested and matches with the descendants of the well-known Ensign Benjamin Cooley.
  2. Correspondent Frank Cooley has tested. As shown below, he is a likely descendant of William Cooley and Elizabeth Firmin of Maryland and of Fayette county, Pennsylvania.

Fayette county Cooleys

William Cooley, Frank's likely patrilineal ancestor, left Maryland for Fayette county Pennsylvania, probably with is wife Elizabeth Firmin, ca 1803.2 The couple is found living together, without other family members, in Franklin township on the 1810 census. Near them are found their sons Frederick and Jonathan. The family of John A[ndrew] Cooley is found in neighboring Tyrone township. This John is said to have been the son of "Dutch" John Cooley and and his first wife, Annetje Decker,3 assumed to have still been residing in Maryland. A third Cooley patriarch, Richard Cooley, is found living in Springhill township. Richard is believed to have been of the Daniell Cooley line, another Maryland family. (Samuel Cooley of Bridgeport is thought by some to have been a brother of John Andrew Cooley and, therefore, of the supposed Dutch line.)

Although there may have been at least three unrelated Cooley families in Fayette county as early as 1810, we now have genetic confirmation of two distinct lines. Frank Cooley is of haplogroup R1b1b24 while the descendants of Richard Cooley (the Daniell Cooley line) are R1a1.5

1810 Fayette county PA

Ancestor Residence Origin Haplogroup
William Cooley Franklin twp Maryland R1b1b26
Richard Cooley Springhill twp Maryland R1a1
John A Cooley Tyrone twp New York unknown

Frank's Lineage

We know from the 1889 biographical sketch2 that William and Elizabeth (Firmin) Cooley had sons John, Jonathan, Matthew, Isaac and Frederick Cooley. Frederick Cooley married Jane Robinson and had at least seven sons, the seventh being Matthew Cooley.7

Frank Cooley believes that his John Cooley, born 1822 in Fayette county and later residing in Allegheny county, was one of Frederick's sons. Although the critical document linking the two has not yet been found, the circumstantial evidence is very strong. But let's take that leap of faith for the sake of the argument—that Frank is of the William Cooley/Elizabeth Firmin line.

One of the most curious aspects to this whole thing is that William and Dutch John are both said to have married Elizabeth Firmin/Fermin.8 Attributing this wife to William is easy. She is cited by her full name in the 1889 biography—her grandson John Cooley (born 1816), the subject of the article, being the likely authority for the information. Credence for the biographical citation is found in the previously mentioned 1810 census entry for William. Furthermore, the name Firmin is found among Elizabeth's descendants, as follows:

                           Following the Firmans

                              William Cooley
                            m Elizabeth Firmin
                       |                           |
                    Jonathan                   Frederick
                       |                           |
                   ----------            ---------------------
                   |        |            |         |         |
                William   John2       William   FIRMIN    Matthew7
                   |                     |
                FIRMAN                FIRMAN

Could Elizabeth have married both William and John? It's conceivable. We don't know when William died, only that he is last found on the 1810 census. Is it possible that she returned to Maryland after her husband's death and married John? Yes, but it's a speculative notion and is akin, at this point, to fantasy. The problem is that I have never seen any corroborating evidence of the marriage. Of course, neither have I seen evidence that John married Annetje Decker or Rebecca Kastner. But these are not points of contention so far as I'm concerned. The idea that John Cooley of Stokes county was Dutch, was born in New York in 1740 and was married to Elizabeth Fermin are points of contention.

The John Cooleys of Maryland

The early Cooleys of Maryland were huddled into the northeast corner of the state at the top of the Chesapeake Bay—in Harford, Cecil and Kent counties. A John Cooley and a Cornelius Cowley are found as inhabitants of Cecil county in 1752.9 We find the following John Cooleys on the early census records.

John Cooley1790 Harford
John Cooley1800Cecil
Capt John Cooley1800 Harford
John Cooley1820 Cecil

The Harford John is well identified. He was married to Sarah Anne Gilbert and is said to have been a grandson of Daniell Cooley. He appears to have been involved in local politics, dying in Harford county in 1807.

The 1820 Cecil county John was enumerated as being between the ages of 16 and 44, far too young to have been a man said to have been born in 1740. So where was Dutch John?

John and Annetje

Despite having a well-developed pedigree, surprisingly little can be found about John Cooley of New York and Maryland. I've long considered the DAR Lineage Book as the most credible source for him. In attempting to find out more, I turned to Cooley researcher, Sandra Stanton, a member of the DAR. In her September 2008 reply, she said:

There is only this one application for John Cooley born NY. Apparently what [the member] submitted is no longer accepted and must be again proven...It doesn't state exactly what is wrong with it. This application is from the late 1960s as far as I can determined by her membership number...Proof papers are not given on this member's site.

In other words, the DAR determined that the proofs submitted for John Cooley were insufficient.

Sandy included this information from the DAR file:

The first thing that strikes me about this is that it says that John was born in Westchester, New York, not in Goshen, Orange county. Searching the 1790 census for New York, I find this:

John Cooley, Bedford Twp, Westchester Co, NY

2 free white males 16+
2 free white males under 16
5 free white females

All we can gather about this is that the two men, presumably father and son, are both over 16. If the son was 16 years old (born by 1774) and the father at least 20 years older (born by 1754) we have a potential match to Dutch John and his son John Andrew. However, this is far too little to go on. In any event, although this Westchester John may have served in Colonel Van Cordtlandt's company, it is unlikely that his children were born in Maryland—or North Carolina for that matter.

I've often read (or did I imagine it?) that John left a will in Kent county at his death in 1823. In attempting to secure a copy from the Kent county Registrar of Wills, I received the following response from Nancy Jewell on January 27, 2010:

Mr. Cooley, I am sorry but we do not have a Will for John Cooley.

Perhaps we can't find Dutch John because we're looking in the wrong places. Had he stayed in NY those 50 years prior to the 1790 census? When did he move into Maryland, if at all? If we can't find a record of John Cooley in Maryland, where does he first enter into the literature?

The principally-used citation for John's Dutch ancestry, his marriages and children, is Lura Coolley Hamil's The Story of Pioneering. I have ten to twelve photocopied pages of it but they cover the later migration into Missouri. I turned to Cooley researcher Rick Ernst to find out what documents she cites. Included in his September 2008 response is this:

[Hamil] later cites, for Jonathan Cooley b. 1777, Cyclopedia of Fayette Biographies, 1889, pp. 421 and 422.

And there's the rub. Mrs Hamil wrote—and this has been quoted over and over again—that Jonathan Cooley was the son of John Cooley and Elizabeth Fermin. However, her source for the information says this:

JOHN COOLEY is a son of Jonathan Colley and Jane Passmore Cooley, and was born in Tyrone township, Fayette county, Penna, August 22, 1816.

William Cooley, paternal grandfather, was of Irish extraction and at the time of the Revolutionary War was a resident of Maryland, and followed wagoning. He was married to Elizabeth Firmin. Their children were: John Cooley, Jonathan Cooley (father), Matthew Cooley, Isaac Cooley, and Frederick Cooley.

Jonathan Cooley, father, was born in 1777 and died in 1817. He was a "forgeman" and came from Maryland to Fayette county in 1803...

Why does Hamil state that Jonathan was the son of John when her source clearly says the father's name was William? Did she have corroborating evidence to suggest that the biography was incorrect? If so, why doesn't she cite it? Did she intentionally ignore the statement in order to further her claim of Dutch descent? Or could the printed text (published more than 20 years after Hamil's death) have been a simple typographical error—or misinterpretation by the editors?

I can think of no other explanations. In any event, the 1889 biography is far more credible than Mrs Hamil's assertions for three very essential reasons:

  1. The subject of the sketch, John Cooley (born 1816), was still living and was the likely informant.
  2. The 1810 census record backs up the statement with the enumeration of William Cooley's household, Fayette county, PA: one adult male and one adult female, each 45+.
  3. The 1889 text predates the Hamil book by more than 65 years—her research by more than 40 years.

It's not my intention at this point in time to totally slam Hamil's work. But I would like to remind readers of the 1977 letter to Dennis Young from Elizabeth Cooley then of the Cooley Family of America Association.

Mrs. Hamil went about grabbing up anything she felt might go together, has mixed up many different Cooley families...

Finally, if we list Elizabeth Firmin's children from her marriage to William alongside those Hamil said were born to John, we come up with this:

Children of Elizabeth Fermin/Firmin

by John Cooley
by William Cooley
- John
Jonathan (1777-1817) Jonathan (1777-1817)
Daniel Matthew
David Isaac Isaac
Frederick Henry Frederick

I have little doubt that there was a John Cooley baptized in New York on June 17, 1740. Although I haven't seen it, others have assured me that they have seen the published compilation of records from the Reformed Dutch Church.10 But what evidence exists that he married Elizabeth Fermin or that his descendants went into Maryland? Only Hamil (or her editors), it seems, have stated it was so and yet her own citation contradicts the notion.

Further thoughts on William

Frank Cooley has found an interesting tidbit of information. Neither he nor I are ready to claim that this is the William Cooley of Fayette county but it is certainly worth noting.

"Cooley, William, born 1753, a founder in Dublin, emigrated from London to Maryland on the Rebecca as an indentured servant. 9.1774. [PRO.T47/9-11]" - Extrapolated from The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 64, by Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters, "Irish Emigrants to North America" p 113.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. The 1889 bio states that that William was "of Irish extraction." The same text says he was a wagoner during the Revolution, not that he served. Indeed, if William arrived to the colonies only a year prior to the outbreak of war as a servant to a British subject—and with a contract of perhaps as long as seven years—he may have had no choice but not to participate in the war.

My Conclusions

The closer I look for Dutch John the more he recedes from me. Could this Vanishing Man turn out to be The Man Who Wasn't There? At minimum, he needs to be redefined. The origins of the man born in Goshen or Westchester in 1740 need to be explored and carried through to his possible service in the Revolution, his residence in Westchester in 1790 and any movements elsewhere beyond 1790.11

We may well have at least three genetically distinct groups of Cooleys living in Fayette county by 1810—the Daniell/Richard Cooley line, the families of William and Elizabeth (Firmin) and of John Andrew Cooley. And it may well be that John Andrew Cooley was the son of a John Cooley born in New York in 1740. It's becoming unlikely, however, that he had any connections to Maryland other than a possible short and undocumented residence there sometime in the 1790s. The results of genetic testing by one of his descendants will aid us in finally sorting out the Fayette Cooleys and to distinguish the Maryland Cooleys from the New York Cooleys.

So, I find nothing that contradicts the origins of John Andrew Cooley, the reported son of John and Annetje (Decker) Cooley. But there is clearly no evidence that his father married Elizabeth Fermin. In fact, I believe we can say that it was decidedly not the case. The mix-up between the Maryland and New York Cooleys may have been nothing more than a typo, one resulting in the most confused lineage I've seen in the 30-plus years I've been studying genealogy.

In summary, I feel confident that we can say this:

  1. John Andrew Cooley's origins are not contradicted.
  2. Elizabeth Firmin married William Cooley, not John Cooley.
  3. All evidence, historic and genetic, contradicts the idea that John Cooley of Stokes county NC was born in NY in 1740 and that he married Elizabeth Fermin.

At times, genealogy appears to me to be more faith-based then evidence-based. Genealogy enthusiasts are often too quick to accept the printed word as the final word. When finding discrepancies, they will mix and match, as appears to have been the case with Mrs Hamil's work. Indeed, it's becoming increasingly evident that the father of John Andrew Cooley (1767-1847), the father of Jonathan Cooley (1777-1817), and the father of my own Edward Cooley (1763-1822) is an example of the perfect melding of three distinct individuals into one man.

Genetics, on the other hand, is strictly evidence-based. It has greatly informed our justice system, prompting the release of hundreds of innocent people from death row. In much the same way, it can free many of our ancestors from the bonds and shackles of bad genealogy.

1The earliest mention I can find of this is a family group chart circulated by Dale Walker, perhaps beginning as early as the late 1970s.

2Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, 1889. Gresham and Wiley.

3DAR Patriot Index.

4See results for Family Tree DNA member 167462:

5Although John Cooley of Stokes county has also been determined to be of haplogroup R1a1, there is a genetic distance (number of mismatches) of 16 over 37 markers between his descendants and Daniell's.

6This needs to be confirmed with testing from collateral lines.

7History of Jackson County, Indiana, 1886. Brant and Fuller. Interestingly, the text says his family was "of Dutch descent."

8I've distinguished the difference between John's wife and William's wife with the spellings of Fermin and Firmin, respectively, as they are generally found.

9Inhabitants of Cecil County, 1649-1774, by Henry C. Peden

10Possibly Minisink Valley Reformed Dutch Church Records, 1716-1830

11The John Cooley of the 1800 census of Fayette county PA was born between 1756 and 1774 and could not have been the senior John Cooley. But he may well have been John Andrew Cooley, said to have been born in Westchester NY in 1767.